Law students react to Supreme Court human rights verdict

The law student group that worked on briefs in the landmark US Supreme Court case of Kiobel has reacted to the verdict today that a case brought against Royal Dutch Petroleum, alleging that it aided torture and mass murder, was right to be dismissed.

The case was filed by a small group of Nigerians, now resident in the US, alleging that Royal Dutch Petroleum was complicit in, and abetted the Nigerian government in, the torture and mass murder of people protesting against the company’s work in the Ogoni region during the 1990s.

Judges unanimously agreed that plaintiffs’ complaints against Royal Dutch Petroleum were correctly dismissed by the Second Circuit court.

The School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) group Banyan said in a statement: “The Supreme Court judgment on the Kiobel case came out today. Not a great result – the majority really curtailed when this piece of legislation can be used to sue for human rights abuses, restricting it to cases which really touch and concern the territory of the US (i.e. when the perpetrator, victim or act has a really strong link to the US).

“They also rejected the idea that mere corporate presence in the US would be enough – presumably the company would have to have really strong ties to the US for suit to be brought. On the plus side, they did not find that corporations could not inherently be sued under the legislation (which was the argument before them when the case first came in).

“So it’s a bit of a blow, in short – the court came out in a much more restrictive posture than we anticipated, making it hard to launch suit. There was a majority opinion and three concurring opinions. That always means that there’s some funny judicial politics going on.

“You get a little bit of a sense of that in the opinions – there’s a definite conservative/liberal split, with Anthony Kennedy, the swing vote, authoring a two-paragraph opinion that seems to argue that the court hasn’t been restrictive but has created the start of a new body of law. Very odd.”

The decision has curtailed the ability of American courts to hear lawsuits alleging human rights abuses committed outside of the country.

Petitioner Esther Kiobel had represented the group. It had used Alien Tort Statute, which allows some federal courts to hear certain violations of international law, to bring the lawsuit against Royal Dutch Petroleum, Shell Transport and Trading Company and Shell Petroleum Development Company of Nigeria.

The SOAS group established the advocacy network to allow students to work pro bono on cases which aim to further human rights, development or social justice and are committed to practical change. The group is offering its research skills and knowledge to civil society agencies, development groups and law firms.

Kingston University’s Community Legal Advice Centre has reported an increase in the number of cases it handles as cuts to legal aid start to bite (2 April 2013).